August 5, 2014

City website a good first step toward government transparency

Fulfilling a campaign promise by Mayor Betsy Price, Fort Worth is jumping on the open data government bandwagon.

Fulfilling a campaign promise by Mayor Betsy Price, Fort Worth is jumping on the open data government bandwagon.

Last month, the city launched an online portal that provides direct access to a wellspring of public information.

Open data sites like the city’s new data.fortworthtexas.gov are based on the principle that government data is a public asset — like parks and roads — and should be made readily available to everyone.

Michele Gutt, the city’s director of communication and public engagement, told council members in April that improving access to public data will not only improve government accountability but will also increase efficiency.

For example, the city could post performance goals on the website and track their measurement for all to see.

It could also free up staffers in departments that spend undue amounts of time tracking down data for constituents.

The information published on the website is not new. In fact, it’s already open to the public but is often difficult or tedious to obtain.

Which is why open data governments need to do more than make information readily available. They need to provide it in formats that people can use, manipulate and republish, without restrictions from copyright, patents and other controls.

But with all the data available, the city will have a tough time determining what information to include and in what format it should be presented.

Gutt told the council that the city will be “very selective” about what data it will publish.

“The key thing is to put information out there that supports our strategic goals,” she said.

That means prioritizing data sets that people are already asking for, seeking department feedback about what might improve internal efficiency and asking members of the public to see what is most useful to them.

Right now, the website includes data about residential and commercial permits and certificates of occupancy. The city expects to have another wave of information on the website by October, including crime statistics, code violations and the progress and location of capital projects.

It’s unlikely that the city will be able to make all of its public data accessible via the website, and that will frustrate some users.

But at a time when trust in government is cratering, Fort Worth appears to be making efforts to turn the tide. This website advances that effort.

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